How to Beat the House: Value in the Draft

If you asked most NFL fans "Where is the best place to draft?", the most likely answer you would get is "as close to the top of the round as you can get".  The most talented players are picked first.  That is why the draft order is in reverse of the standings.  The worse a team is, the more it needs talented players.  The assumption would be, the higher the better.  You know what they say about assumptions.

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What are the odds that this pass was incomplete or intercepted?

val-ue (val'you) 1. An amount, as of goods, services, or money, considered to be a fair and suitable equivalent for something else; a fair price or return.

This more than anything has to be kept in mind.  Yes, we all want Jake Long, but isn't Ryan Clady, a very comparable player but 40 million dollars cheaper, a better value?  The answer is yes.  Always be asking, what is the best value?  

What I am going to try and do, is find out what is the best value for a pick in the NFL draft?  I am considering all factors.  Money, length, and value of player picked.  I have gone back over the past ten drafts while researching the Browns drafting habits.  Something stood out.  What is more important?  Having the better choice of player, or having less money tied into an unproven player?

I am trying to find the perfect area in which the return is still high in terms of drafting a serviceable, and hopefully Pro Bowl level player, but the downside is affordable.

I am looking at some different factors.  Length of contract, money per pick, and at what point in the draft does the talent level fall off?  Some of these factors will be easier than others to prove, and some will be up for debate.  At the end of this, I hope to find the best value picks in todays NFL draft.  

And here we go.

CONTRACT LENGTH  

First, we need to find out how long teams can sign player

  • For picks 1-16 (first half of first round) a contract can be no longer than 6 seasons.
  • For picks 17-32 (second half of first round) a contract can be no longer than 5 seasons.
  • For picks 32 and on, a contract can be no longer than 4 seasons.
  •  

    This doesn't seem like a huge deal, and personally I don't think it is.  In speaking of first round picks, at the end of 5 seasons, you should have a good idea what kind of player that you have drafted.  Is the extra season under contract worth the higher draft slot?  I don't think so.  So the length of the contract is mentionable, but hardly a main factor in drafting.

    CONTRACT VALUES

    The NFL works off of a slotting system for the draft.  In other words, the number one pick is paid the most, pick number two is paid less, pick three less than two and so on.  It isn't hard to figure out what a top pick will receive.  Take the previous years selection at the same slot, and in a couple extra million, and boom, rookie contract is made.  

    2007 NFL Draft 15th Pick: Lawrence Timmons  (5 years, 15 million)

    2008 NFL Draft 15th Pick:  Branden Albert  (5 years, 16 million)

    On the other hand, second round players are given usually around one million dollars per season.

    2008 NFL Draft 57th Pick: Chad Henne (4 years, 3.5 Million)

    2009 NFL Draft 44th Pick: Pat White (4 years, 4.75 Million)

    At what point in the draft does the money amount change from asinine, to a worthy gamble?  I have done much research on this.  I have gone through almost every teams rosters and salaries trying to figure out what would be a good dollar amount to place on a rookie.  When it came down to it, I did the easiest, and in my opinion the most practical, solution I could think of.  

    • I took the 2009 NFL Salary Cap (127 Million) and divided it by 45.  Why 45?  Because on game day, the NFL allows every team to dress 45 players (46 if you count the emergency QB).  So I think that a rookie should be given his fair share.
    • I took this figure, 2.82 million and inflated it some.  After all, this is a first round draft pick that should be counted on play, and play well.  This isn't a guy off the street.  Most first round picks are expected to be starters from day one.  How much do I inflate?  I added in $500,000 bonus to be the first round draft choice.  500k may be a large number to you and I, but when you are considering the 127 million dollar cap, it isn't.
    • I came across a small issue around the '05 NFL draft.  The inflation of the draft class was surpassing that of the NFL.  So I added in a balloon payment, starting in '06.  Every year, I will add in an extra $50,000 to the previous season rookie pick.  This is a MINIMAL upgrade every season.  50k was .000397% of the '09 salary cap.  Minimal.
    • This gives us a formula to follow every year for figuring out where we need to set the ceiling of our draft.  From '95 on, here is what it would look like.  If anyone has ideas on how to tweak this formula, I am all ears.

    Now this isn't some sort of hard cap, it should be slightly flexible.  After all, if there was a player that was really what we needed, we should be able to jump up an extra pick or two to make it happen.  But it can't be much more or we risk getting into a dangerous zone again.  The following season the cap number will rise and so will the cap number for our NFL rookie.  But, as we discussed above, with every passing season the cap and rookie pay scale increases.  These usually increase at closely the same rate, so if everything  holds true, our rookie cap will increase with every passing season along with the draft.  We don't have to make a new formula every season, it adjusts itself!  

    Looking back, what would this formula allowed a team to spend on their first choice of the draft?  (The latest salary cap info I could find was for '05)

    • 2005:  Salary Cap 85.5 Million / 45 Players = 1.9 million + 500k = 2.4 Million per pick
    • 2006:  Salary Cap 102 Million / 45 Players = 2.26 million + 550k = 2.81 Million per pick
    • 2007:  Salary Cap 107 Million / 45 Players = 2.3 million + 600k = 2.9 Million per pick
    • 2008:  Salary Cap 116.7 Million / 45 Players = 2.59 million + 650k = 3.24 Million per pick
    • 2009:  Salary Cap 127 Million / 45 Players = 2.82 Million + 700k = 3.52 Million per pick

    Where did this figures get us in the NFL draft these seasons?  

    • 2005 DeMarcus Ware 5 years, 12 million = 2.4 Million [11th Overall, 1st round]
    • 2006 Broderick Bunkley 6 years, 17 million = 2.8 Million [14th Overall, 1st round]
    • 2007 Jarvis Moss 5 years, 14.95 million = 2.99 Million [17th Overall, 1st round]
    • 2008 Branden Albert 5 years, 15.8 million = 3.18 Million [15th Overall, 1st round]
    • 2009 Brian Cushing 5 years, 18 million = 3.6 Million [15th Overall, 1st round]

    So looking at the data, it shows that the highest we should be looking to draft is somewhere around the 15-17 range.  The slight pay increase every season keeps us mostly in the same range year in and year out.  These numbers are not hard caps, but should be followed as closely as possible.

    So, now that we have an idea of what we would like to pay our rookies, what would this do for our teams salary cap?  In theory, over time the team would lower its payroll across the board.  After all, we aren't paying second, third, fourth, and so on, rounders the same amount we would be paying our first rounders.  This would allow our team to have deep pockets in free agency filling the gaps that we missed in the draft, and most importantly keeping the players that turn in to quality players on the roster.  We would become self sufficient in a perfect world.  If a player decides that he could earn more money elsewhere, our drafting strategy would allow us to either draft replacements ahead of time, or go the free agency route to replace the player at a cheaper price.  I know, this is what every team strives for but only a few have become successful at (New England, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Philly).  This thinking just takes these theories to the next step.

    Now that we have a cap at where we should be picking, we need to find the lowest of the value.  At what point in the draft does the talent really start to dry up?

    TALENT DROP OFF

    This was very hard for me to gauge.  How do I qualify that a player is good?  Is it a starter?  I have my opinions on certain players that may not mesh with what you think.  I needed to find something more concrete.  I needed to find a formula of some sort that is fair to all the players.  I decided on this.

    • From the day that a player is drafted, he has four seasons to reach a Pro Bowl.  After all we are trying to find out where the IMPACT players dry up in the NFL draft.  Granted, the travishamockery that the Pro Bowl has turned into this season has somewhat hurt this years Pro Bowl, but this never affected my results.
    • I chose 4 seasons for one reason.  As we discovered earlier, 2nd round picks are not allowed to sign anything longer than a four year contract.  An Impact player makes an impact during a rookie contract.
    • Again, this is what I am looking for suggestions on.  Does this sound like a decent enough way to establish a floor?  Is there some other way you think would be better?  I am all ears.

    By no means am I saying that a player that doesn't make a Pro Bowl in his first four seasons is not a good player.  Example, in the '05 draft, Barrett Rudd was taken with the 36th pick, hasn't reached a Pro Bowl and I consider him a damn fine player.  The same could be said for our own D'Qwell Jackson.  A damn fine player, but not the IMPACT player that I am looking for.  That is why I drew the line.  I needed something concrete to prove my point.

    So where was the floor?  I went back and looked at the '99 draft all the until the '08 draft.  I left out the '09 draft because we really still have no idea about these players.  Some may say that I should have kept out the '08 and '07 drafts as well.  But looking back, I am confident in saying that Ray Rice and LaMarr Woodley are impact players at this level.  

    Every season looking back, I looked for the final player that matched my criteria above and was in a grouping of other strong players.  I did this because I am looking for the talent drop off.  After all in the '05 draft Trent Cole was the 146th player.  He is a very good player, but he was sandwiched around crap in the draft (Jerome Collins, Dan Orlovsky, Alphonso Hodge, and Jonathon Welsh).  I am not looking for how far diamonds fall in the draft, I am looking for what is the last point that the majority of players picked are quality NFL players.

    So here in order are the players from '99 to '08.

    • 1999: Pick 41: Dre Bly CB, Multiple Pro Bowls
    • 2000: Pick 40: Ian Gold LB, Pro Bowl in '01
    • 2001: Pick 52: Chris Chambers, WR Pro Bowl in '05
    • 2002: Pick 58: Michael Lewis, SS Multiple Pro Bowls
    • 2003: Pick 56: Osi Umenyoria, DE Multiple Pro Bowls
    • 2004: Pick 44: Bob Sanders, SS Multiple Pro Bowls
    • 2005: Pick 51: Nick Collins, FS Multiple Pro Bowls
    • 2006: Pick 50: Marcus McNeil, LT Multiple Pro Bowls
    • 2007: Pick 46: LaMaar Woodley, OLB Pro Bowl '09 (Original Choice, I could have gone with Ryan Kalil, but he was an injury replacement so I stuck with Woodley.)  
    • 2008: Pick 55: Ray Rice, RB, Pro Bowl '09 (Original Choice)

    Every draft is different.  Some are stronger, some are weaker.  These drafts have averaged out to be the 49.3 pick in the draft.  Just because I like round numbers, I am willing to round that number up to 50.  Once again, good even great players will be found after this pick.  Anyone who says different is a fool.  This just happens to be a pretty good estimation on where the talent takes a steep drop off.  That is what we were after right?

    Pick Ceiling: Pick 15 (established in contract values)

    Pick Floor: Pick 50 (established in talent drop off)

    WHAT THIS TELLS US:

    Now that we have found the value potion of the draft how do we get there?  Trading down is damn near impossible in todays NFL.  Why?  Because most teams don't want to pay the huge contracts and give up the high price to trade up.  We as a team can control one of these factors.  

    Here is the NFL trade chart for draft picks.  The Browns hold the number 7 pick, according to the chart worth 1,500 points.  It would cost the Giants their first (15th worth 1,050) and second round picks (46th worth 440) to even make it close according to the chart.  

    This is what I am offering.  Take 75 cents on the dollar.  Ask the Chiefs if they would be willing to trade both of thier second rounders (50th worth 400 points and the 36th worth 540 points) plus their third rounder (68th worth 250 points) for the 7th pick.  According to the draft chart, we are only getting 1,190 points for a pick that is worth 1,500.  That is only 79% of the value.  But we are getting out from under a draft choice that will need to be paid upwards of 8 million dollars a season.

    At first glance this looks crazy.  We are passing up a chance at Joe Haden or Eric Berry.  But we acquiring two picks in the value zone and another third pick. This would give the Browns three choices in the third round (68th, 71st, and 92nd choice.)  Could we use one of these to trade back up into the value zone for a third pick?  Possibly.

    We could also trade a third rounder for a following season's second rounder.  This isn't impossible, New England did this twice last year and has three second rounders this season.  We should always be trying to get into this zone. 

    We need to be attacking the area of the draft where we as a team are getting the best bang for our dollar.  

    New England is the team to really watch.  They have done this perfectly over the past two drafts.  In the '09 draft they had four draft choices.  These four players all had an impact on their season (Vollmer, Butler, Brace, and Chung).  This upcoming draft the Pats have three second round choices.  They got the Chiefs pick in the Cassel deal, but the rest of the picks were acquired by trading down.  

    Remember when the trade of Matt Cassel went down and everyone thought that the Pats were crazy to want the second rounder instead of the first rounder from the Chiefs?  The Pats were smart enough to realize the danger of picking high.  The Pats are the one team in the NFL who have figured this out.  The end of the first round, and more importantly (think cheaper) the second round is the best value.  When will other teams start putting this together?

    I am not saying that this line of thinking is the only way to attack a draft.  After all, we as a team must pass on players like Andre Johnson, Joe Thomas and Adrian Peterson's of the world.  But for every Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald there is a Troy Williamson and Charles Rogers.  For every Greg Jennings drafted there is a Andre Davis.  The difference is that an Andre Davis costs 6 million while Charles Rogers costs 60 million.

    As a franchise you can remove the most dangerous aspect of a draft pick.  Paying through the nose for a crap player.  Maybe you fan base wont be excited, but they will when you start winning.  Take away the risk, yet keep a decent enough window of success.

    No one can predict that any player will ever be a star, let alone in the NFL after 4 years.  The NFL draft is a lottery.  A crap shoot.  Maybe a player played the perfect system.  Maybe they have already maxed out their talent.  Yes, we like to think that we have an idea what players will be stars (Think Calvin Johnson destroying the ACC) but no matter how many times we say a player is for sure, players burn out.  

    And there in lies the rub.  No matter how sure Mel Kiper and Todd McShay think they know a player, it is a crapshoot.  So my question is, why not be responsible and remove the risk that we can?
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